The fourth floor of the New York Times Building, where the eponymous paper’s newly-formed Books Desk keeps its nest, is, somewhat appropriately, under construction. One side of the floor is blocked off with yellow barricade tape. On the other side, the books team, led by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, is undergoing renovations of its own.
Those changes began last August, when the newsroom leadership decided that the paper’s books coverage, both in print and for the web, should be centralized to one desk. Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.
With the choice to combine books sections made, another choice was inevitable: how to combine. “You could say, ‘Let’s just take these three separate sections—which, again, were really derived from a print newspaper era—and shove them together and continue coverage as-is, coordinating more,’” Paul said. “Or you could pause and take a moment and say, ‘If you were starting from scratch and weren’t just pushing these three sections together, what would New York Times books coverage look like?’”
The paper opted for the latter, and began the process of discovering what that coverage would look like by expanding Paul’s duties from running the Book Review to overseeing all books coverage at the paper.
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[A]s Paul put it, “this is one of the cases in which centralizing and consolidating is not reduction. It’s expansion. Obviously, we need the staff to be able to carry that out.” That has meant bringing on faces both fresh and well-known at the Times over the course of the past year, including deputy editor of books features Laura Marmor (from the paper’s Styles section), Susan Ellingwood as news and features editor (from Opinion), digital staff writer Concepción de Léon (from Glamour magazine), fact-checker and occasional writer Lovia Gyarke (from the New Republic), and Book Review staff editor Lauren Christensen (from Harper’s Bazaar), among others. Earlier this month, senior editor Parul Sehgal, a PW alumnus, joined Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as a daily critic in the wake of the departure of longtime chief critic Michiko Kakutani—one of many writers at the Times to recently take a buy-out. Kakutani’s role will not be filled.
Once Jones was on board, she and Paul, along with the research wing of the Times, set out to investigate what current and prospective readers of the paper, both in New York City and elsewhere, wanted to see in terms of coverage. That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?
In short, the duo discovered the need for a paradigm shift in terms of how they were approaching the books that came across the Books Desk.
“It used to be that a book would come in and we’d say, ‘Should we review this or not?’” Paul said. “Now the book comes in and we say, ‘Should we cover this or not, and if so, what should that coverage be? What is the best way to tell this story, regardless of the medium?’”
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As for the Times bestseller lists—which, famously, are governed by an algorithm that the paper’s reporters and editors know nothing about—Paul maintains that publishers and authors (whom, she stressed, comprise only a subsection of the Book Review’s audience) were the only readers who showed any particular unhappiness about the axing earlier this year of such rankings as the mass market and graphic novel lists. She said that the Books Desk as a whole is providing a similar function for its readers in what she believes are much better ways.
“Many readers of the print Book Review don’t like flipping through ten pages of lists,” Paul said. “We’re going to have some kind of ‘new and noteworthy’ column [in the redesign], which is, frankly, a much better way to find out what’s new, where there’s actual description and an image of the book and a much more useful sense of what the book is about than a teeny little microdescription on a bestseller list.”
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But other growing categories, like e-book only and self-published books, will not be covered. “Frankly, many, many, many books have been thoroughly vetted and edited and worked on collaboratively, and we only review about 1% of those books,” Paul said. “For our editors to pay attention to the number of books that are coming out from every big publisher all the way down to the smallest indie publisher, and for them to do that job well, is job enough.”
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And the industry will, Paul insists, be there in 12 years for the Times to cover, undoubtedly in newer ways. The drumbeat of doom and gloom that accompanies the day-to-day existence of the book industry is, she noted, perennial. But as far as she’s concerned, that industry—like the paper that houses the Books Desk that covers it—is anything but failing.
“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative,” Paul said. “People looked at retailing, they said, ‘It’s dead, it’s gone, it’s done.’ And yet independent bookstores are thriving. Amazon is getting into the retail space. This could be a new area of growth. I don’t feel worried.”
PG says any proper “Books Desk” in 2017 would have at least one person, and likely more than one person, located in Seattle, which is where the real center of the U.S. book business is and will be for at least the next several years.
PG notes that Amazon is mentioned only one time in the OP, and only because Amazon has opened a few physical bookstores.
At times New York City seems like a very provincial place.